Can anthropology claim to be a science?
It seems that there is a failure in both the observation and the production of the article or the writing up (ethnography). The problem that faces any humanity, based discipline is that subject matter to be studied is humans and their environment. As Malinowski puts it when writing about people of the Trobriand Islands (1922: 11), “There is no written or explicitly expressed code of laws, and their whole tribal tradition, the whole structure of their society, are embodied in the most elusive of all materials; the human being.
” Therefore if humans are “elusive” how is it possible to record, with a degree of accuracy that which can be slotted into our new understanding of science? Furthermore anthropology is more than just a study of people it is a study of the interactions of people that are different from ourselves. To capture this thought we should turn again to Carrithers (1992: 2), ” Human beings do not just produce society, but society in forms which are incalculably various, constantly mutable, and labyrinthine in their elaborateness. ”
In answer to the above question, it is argued it is in the variability of human interaction, society and culture where the answer lies. As humans we learn to adapt to new environments, it is unique to human sapiens. As Carrithers points out (1992:5),” … one set of the universals that unify our species, namely that set of capabilities that allows us to create cultural diversity. ” Therefore, if we can learn to adapt to the new surely it is possible for the ethnographer to adapt and learn about the subject people they have chosen.
To further this idea, it is the aim of the participant observer to observe the subject at hand in its most natural environment. If the observer is disruptive to the environment that is to be studied then that environment is no longer natural and the results gathered will be polluted by their own presence. Therefore, it is essential that the ethnographer does learn how to adapt to the new environment and become part of it adding as little disruption to the lives of the people that they study. Malinowski (1922:7-8) study supports this argument by saying:
“It must be remembered that as the natives saw me constantly every day, they ceased to be interested or alarmed, or made self conscious by my presence, and I ceased to be a disturbing element in the tribal life which I was to study, altering it by my very approach, as always happens with a new-comer to every savage community. ” Going back to the point about learning to adapt also addresses the issue of objectivity. If we can learn to adapt, for example as an immigrant into a new country, we are able to, eventually, come to understand it when we participate with in it.
The action we must take to achieve this is then the interaction with the people, learning of the language, being interactive and learning through process. To support this view Carrithers says, “Learning, living together, and changing the social world are done between people, not within them. ” (1992: 10-11) An ethnographer or anthropologist has another tool, which he can use to make his observations valid and that is basic personal experience. When we are upset, lets say, we display certain emotions and others react in certain way to sooth that outburst.
We can recognise that observation and tying them up with our own experience of being upset personally and observing it in our own experience. This observation makes it no less valid, in a scientific sense, than knowing that litmus paper dipped in citric acid will turn a particular colour. It is not just the observations of emotions that is to be observed, it may also be casual conversation which may be of the utmost importance to the ethnographer and is identified as such through experience, albeit in a different form but similar non the less. (Carrithers 1992: 159-161)
To summarise, we see that there is indeed ground to base the idea that anthropology is a science. Science, as is shown, is not infallible and does not live on a plane that is separate to nature or social and cultural experience. In fact, it lives on the same plane. Once this has been established we can move on to think that to study humans in their environment is perfectly valid. This is despite the fact that pure objectivity may be out of reach (as it is in natural science). We cannot plug a society into a machine and get the answers we require but we can adopt valid methods as an alternative.
Bibliography Carrithers, M.1992. ‘The Question,’ pp. 1-9, and ‘The Bugbear, Science,’ pp. 146-165, Why Humans Have Cultures, Explaining Anthropology and Social Diversity. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Ingold, T. 2000. ‘General Introduction’ pp. 1, and ‘A Circumpolar night’s Dream’ pp. 108, The Perception of the Environment, Essays in livelihood, dwelling and skill. London: Routledge Taylor ; Francis Group. Malinowski, B. 1922. ‘Introduction The Subject, Method and Scope of this Inquiry’ pp 1-25. Argonauts of the Western Pacific. London: Routledge ; Kegan Paul. Miner, H. 1956. ‘Body ritual among the Nacirema’. American Anthropologist 58: 503-507.